Serendipity (Or How I Ended Up In That StoryBundle)

There are some things in life that you can’t plan for and my inclusion in this particular StoryBundle is one of them.

What StoryBundle you might ask?  Well this one, of course.

NaNoWriMo Writing Tools Bundle ad

(Sorry, shameless plug. It’s gonna happen a few times over the next two months, but we’ll try to keep it to a minimum.)

A little background. I’ve wanted to be in a StoryBundle for a while now. I emailed them about Rider’s Revenge when I published it and never heard a thing. I have a friend who actually curates bundles for them, but had yet to convince her to build one I could be a part of, so would jealously look askance at people who had the chance to be in one but turned it down.

It’s been on my radar for a couple years now. But I hadn’t done much more than hope and bug my friend about it on occasion.

Then this year I went to a great conference in Colorado Springs, the Superstars Writing Seminars. As part of the conference they also ask you to join their groups on Facebook. One for the whole group and one for that year’s conference.

Now, let me tell you, I’m not a big joiner. I’m a happily content loner. So it felt a little awkward to me to have to join those groups. But I did it. And I occasionally participated as questions were asked that I knew something about.

And then in August the chance came that I didn’t even know was possible. Kevin J. Anderson said he was putting together a StoryBundle of epic fantasy books and needed a couple more to round out the bundle. He needed them soon. Was anyone interested?

Yes! Me! Me! Right here. Me.

Except…

The Rider’s books were in KU at the time. And not due to roll out until early September which was past his deadline.

I’ll tell ya, I was sorely tempted to see if Amazon would notice. But I like to stay on the right side of the rules, so no bundle for me.

I was very sad.

But Kevin had mentioned that there would be other bundles in the future, so I hoped that maybe someday I’d be in one. I figured maybe next year sometime.

In the meantime, I’d done something slightly crazy, which was spend most of my summer writing non-fiction. I couldn’t figure out a direction to take my fiction writing. (Another romance novel, a standalone fantasy novel, a MG fantasy series, a YA fantasy series, an adult fantasy series…The possibilities were endless and no one story was calling to be written.) Rather than sit there and stare at my computer day after day, I had turned to non-fiction writing.

I wrote a book on CreateSpace first. I was supposed to write one on ACX next, but decided I’d knock out an Excel guide to writers real quick.

As I started to write, I realized that what I used Excel for when I was on the trade publishing path was very different from what I use it for on the self-publishing path. And that the two really don’t overlap much.

I also realized that some of my audience might not be all that familiar with Excel. Or might be familiar with the basics of Excel but not the more advanced parts of Excel like pivot tables and conditional formatting.

Suddenly that one 20K-word book that was going to take me maybe two weeks to write became four books that took me quite a bit longer to write.

The whole time I was finalizing them I was kicking myself for being a fool to write them in the first place. Sure, it was fun to do. I’m a bit of a math and spreadsheet nerd and I like to solve puzzles, which is a lot of what writing them entailed.

But I didn’t expect that they’d sell, especially the writing ones. I mean, honestly, how many people have enough of an interest in Microsoft Excel to buy a book that combines Excel and writing?

(More should–if you’re going to self-publish you should at least know pivot tables–but let’s be honest here. It was a niche, niche project I was working on.)

So there I am. Almost done with the books, telling myself this is why I am a crap self-publisher who will never make six-figures in a year. Reminding myself that if the million words I’ve self-published had all been self-published under the same name and on the same general topic or in the same general genre that I might be doing really well at this right now.  And pointing out to myself that all that analysis I do is worth nothing because I don’t put it to practical use and…

Well, you get the point. I was not happy with myself from a business perspective. (From a writing/workday perspective, I actually had a lot of fun with it, which is why I keep doing projects like this, because if I can’t enjoy the day-to-day then I should go back to consulting full-time.)

Anyway. Not happy.

And then Kevin posted to the group again. He said he was doing a NaNoWriMo bundle and needed a couple more books. (I won’t lie, it’s possible I lunged at my computer in excitement.) I offered up Writing for Beginners. It’s a nice solid book for the writer who doesn’t know anything about anything and needs somewhere to begin their writing journey.

But I also mentioned these Excel guides I’d been working on. Kevin didn’t want Writing for Beginners, but he was intrigued by the Excel guides. He asked for more info. I sent him a list of what each one covered. He said he wanted them. Have them ready the next week.

And then silence.

(I probably shouldn’t be admitting my insecurity here since a lot of people who will read this blog in the next two months may do so as part of checking out the bundle and that doesn’t make me sound very authoritative, but if you’ve read any of my non-fiction writing books you’ll know this is just what I do.)

One week stretched to two. I was trying to be patient and confident. But in the back of my mind was this little voice wondering if he’d reconsidered. Maybe he’d found better books. Maybe he’d found bigger name authors to include. Maybe…

And then I got the email with the contract.

And I signed it.

And I sent in the files.

And then silence.

And again I worried. Maybe the files I’d sent weren’t up to snuff. Maybe they’d reconsidered and were doing some last-minute rearranging to replace me.  Maybe…

Maybe I’m a paranoid freak who has too much time on my hands. It’s just that I’d wanted this sooo much and I couldn’t believe it was actually happening until it happened.

As I said yesterday, I have faith in the books I wrote. In the day job I’ve been paid very good money for what I can do in Excel and for my analysis skills in general. But at the same time, I’m a random person on the internet to most anyone who comes across those books. Across any of my books. There’s a certain level of faith involved in buying non-fiction from a stranger.

Which is why I love being part of this bundle. Because people can buy it for the names they recognize and basically get to check out my Excel guides for free at the same time.

So, for my writing friends.  How do you make something like this happen for yourself? I mean, obviously, as the post says, this was serendipity. It was a bunch of random choices that came together in a great way.

But here’s what I think are the takeaways:

One, make connections. If I hadn’t attended Superstars this year, I wouldn’t have been in that group to learn about the opportunity.

Two, put yourself out there. Kevin posted that he needed more titles for the bundle, but I had to respond and offer up my books. He might’ve turned me down. He did on the one book. But if I hadn’t posted to that thread, I would’ve been eliminating myself.  You can’t do that. (In anything in life. )

Three, have a finished product. It sucks to hear about the perfect opportunity but not be able to take advantage of it because that product you’re working on isn’t done yet.

Four, know what’s out there. One of the reasons I jumped all over this the minute it was posted was because I already knew about StoryBundle. And the reason I attended Superstars is because I’d heard about it from more than one source.

I’m lucky. I have no life. So I can write and publish and keep up on blogs and forums, too. I have friends who write and have families and jobs to juggle so don’t have that chance to keep up on the latest developments, which is hard. I think rule one has to be produce new material. But if you aren’t also monitoring the industry and what’s new, you’ll miss opportunities. (Or worse, get scammed.)

Could I have predicted this at all? No.

Do I know that it’ll be fabulous for me? No, it could be a disaster if people hate my work. (Although I’m already chuffed by the whole experience and we’re only one day in.)

Can I plan to make something like this ever happen again? No.  But it does mean I’ll probably make the effort to attend a few conferences next year that I wouldn’t have otherwise. Because you never know what little thing or new connection will be the one that sets a whole cascade of events into motion.

So there you have it. I look forward to all of you attending Superstars next year and Kevin having so many great choices to choose from on the next bundle he curates that I’m not even in the running. (Kidding on that last bit. I plan to be in the running, so bring your A game.)

The NaNoWriMo Writing Tools Bundle Is Here (And I’m In It!)

So this is the bit of news I was alluding to yesterday. My books, Excel for Writers and Excel for Self-Publishers, are both part of the 2017 Nano Storybundle. For $15 you can get both of my books as well as…

  • How to Make a Living With Your Writing by Joanna Penn
  • Hurting Your Characters by Michael J. Carlson
  • Writing as a Team Sport by Kevin J. Anderson
  • The Author’s Guide to Vellum by Chuck Heintzelman
  • Time Management by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
  • The Magic Bakery by Dean Wesley Smith
  • Business for Breakfast Vol 6: The Healthy Professional Writer by Leah Cutter
  • Q&A For Science Fiction Writers by Mike Resnick
  • The Unofficial Scrivener Workbook by Michael J. Carlson
  • Story Structure and Master Chapter Outline Workbook by C. Michael Jefferies
  • Blood From Your Own Pen by Sam Knight

Look at that list. Joanna Penn who has a brilliant podcast. Kevin J. Anderson who co-wrote the Dune series and is the mastermind behind the Superstars Writing Seminars. Kristine Kathryn Rusch whose Thursday business blog posts are a must-read.  And Dean Wesley Smith whose classes on depth and character definitely strengthened my fiction writing.

And those are just the ones that happened to be in my list of web links. I am honored and humbled to be amongst their number. (And proud enough of the Excel guides that I think they hold their own in that list.)

You’d have to pay $10 to get both of my books. For $5 more, look what else you can get. (And, of course, you can always pay more if you think that’s warranted since part of the proceeds are also going to charity.)

So, what are you waiting for? Go buy yourself some brilliant writerly wisdom while it’s cheap.

(I’ll be reading all the books myself and probably mentioning a few here on the blog during the next two months while the books are available. And I’ll also tell you how this all came about in another blog post, since that’s what would matter most to me as a self-publisher.)

It’s Done When You Hate It

A lot of times newer writers ask when you know something is done and ready to publish. Often the answer is some variation of “when you’re so sick of looking at it that you need to get it out the door before you light it on fire.”

So true.

Last night I hit publish on four Excel guides. I literally wrote a novel’s worth of words about Microsoft Excel.

Why? Because I’m weird and I actually find solving problems with Excel fun.

And I have fiction writers’ block at the moment because I’m not sure what novel to write next, so while my back brain works on solving that problem I had to do something to keep busy. (Last year I wrote a random cookbook when this happened.)

It was fun writing the guides at first. Asking myself things like how do you teach someone about pivot tables?  Or how do you calculate a factor for AMS that accounts for KU borrows? Or how would you build an advertising tracker that calculates whether an ad was profitable or not? (Something I’d been doing manually up to that point.)

But by the time I had to redo all of the images in all of the files because I decided they were too blurry. And by the time I finish formatting each of them in Vellum, trying to decide which annoyed me more–an extra space above an image or an indented paragraph after an image. And by the time I decided that in the ebook form I really needed to split out sub-headings for some of the chapters into their own chapter so users could easily find those sections…

Yeah. By then I hated the guides. I’d seen those words so many times.

So so many times.

I was done. Get it away from me before I take a sledge hammer to it.

I get like that with novels, too. When I’m at the point where I think I’d rather poke sharp knives into my eyes than read the darned thing one more time, I know it’s ready to go.

(By then the creation part has long since passed and it’s just little fiddly bits and finding those last five typos that you swear weren’t there the day before.)

Of course, I’m actually not done just yet. I still have to do the paperbacks…

Sigh.

And publish to Kobo and Nook. And set up on AMS on the books. And…

Yeah.

Good news is I’ll be ready for a brand new project come Friday.  And it won’t involve Excel. Yay!

Bad news is I have to grit my teeth and push through today. (After I take the pup in for x-rays and have lunch with my grandma whose brother just died. Because some things matter more than the writing.)

Too Much Focus on Earnings, Too Little on Expenses

Self-publishing is a business. You’re selling a product to people for money. And, unless you have some independent source of wealth, at some point you need to make more than you spend to keep doing it.  And yet…

What do self-publishers focus on 90% of the time? (I think the exception would be some of the promotions threads I’ve seen where people break down what they spent and what they earned from a promo.) They focus on earnings. Or how many books they’ve sold.

We talk about six-figure authors and how impressive they are without ever asking how much they spent to earn those six figures.  And we take their advice over the advice of others even if it’s possible that they’re worse business owners than someone who makes fifty thousand a year. If someone spends $90,000 to make $100,000 they’re actually doing worse than someone who spends $10,000 to make $50,000.  At least from a long-term sustainable business point of view.

(Now, we could argue about whether that person making $100,000 will be better off in the long run because they’re building a bigger customer base for all their subsequent books, but if you’re not in fast-build mode that 90/100 ratio is not going to be sustainable unless you can scale the hell out of it. And if the only way you’re bringing in those readers is with heavy advertising and they aren’t staying once you get them…Well…That’s not good either.)

So why am I talking about this? I’m not at either level.

Well, because I needed a reality check on this myself.  I was so proud in June to have my first $1,000+ month. And to repeat that in July and now August. I thought, finally, I’m getting some traction with this. I envisioned a $30,000 year maybe. And that was exciting to me.

And then I added advertising costs into the mix.

Revenue-wise, year four was more than four times year two. But when you account for advertising?  Year four was only 1.25 times better.

I made thousands more, but I also spent thousands more to get there. And even though I’m still net ahead year four vs. year two, it’s not by near as much as I thought it was. And my best month when you account for advertising expenses? The month I released my written to market billionaire romance short story. My second best month? When I completed the other stories in that series and ran a free promo on the first in series.

Good news is that since I started running AMS heavily in July of last year my months have been more profitable than before. But that sure shows me the power of writing to market, because when you do that customers are looking for you. You don’t have to pay to find them.

A Mini Rant

So yet again I’m seeing James Patterson’s name drug through the mud because supposedly he doesn’t write his novels.  And it annoys me. Not because I read the man’s books, I don’t.  Or at least can’t remember reading any of them.  But more because I find it a symptom of the “they don’t deserve it” -itis that is so common in the writerly community.

Hang around long enough and you’re bound to hear how horrible Stephenie Meyer’s writing is, how E L James’ books are awful, how Dan Brown can’t write his way out of a paper sack, and, of course, how James Patterson doesn’t even write his own books.

It drives me nuts.

One, because so often when this critique is made it’s because writers are focusing on one aspect of writing (the words) and failing to see how plot or emotional engagement are just as important.

And, two, because it comes off sounding like sour grapes. As in, why is that horrible author so successful when I’m so much better?  (Well…perhaps you aren’t.)

And the James Patterson thing annoys me because I took his Masterclass (through masterclass.com–I also did the Aaron Sorkin and Shonda Rhimes ones and enjoyed all three) and in there he talks about his co-writing process.  And from that I can assure you that he doesn’t just slap his name on something someone else writes.  He’s heavily involved in the process and in the plotting and polishing of the novel.

And if we go back to this concept of what is writing a story, I would argue that the easiest part of writing is putting together the sentences.  Finding a way to make those sentences work together to create an experience that pulls a reader through the book is the challenge. Having something happen that’s unbelievable yet totally plausible at the same time isn’t easy either.  And coming up with a way to engage with a reader’s emotions so they actually feel something about your characters and what happens to them is maybe the hardest skill of all.

When these criticisms crop up, those skills are never considered.

Anyway. Next time you find yourself wanting to complain about some very successful author and their lack of writing ability, maybe check yourself and try to figure out what they do right instead.  And, no, it isn’t going to be “spends a lot on advertising” because the people we’re talking about here are all people who’ve generated word of mouth beyond their advertising efforts and who I’ve heard readers rave about.

So when that happens, ask yourself why. You might just find a way to improve your own writing.

(And this rant is not directed at anyone that I know reads this blog, so if any of you recently wrote or posted about this, I’m not writing this rant because I saw your post. It most recently came up in a forum discussion about something else, but it was the third time I’d seen someone say something similar this week and figured it was a good choice for a Wednesday random thoughts post.)

Random Thoughts on Wanting It Enough

In a Facebook group I’m a member of, a member recently posted about how guilty they feel because they have the chance to write full-time and yet they don’t.

I’m currently in that boat. I’ve chosen not to pursue any new consulting work and to just focus on writing and, since I have no real life other than hanging with the puppy and spending time with family, I could technically being writing ALL THE TIME.

I could write for ten hours a day!

I could write seven days a week!

But I don’t.

Because, you know what?  I’ve been there, done that.  When I was working full-time I routinely worked sixty-hour weeks and hit eighty hours a week more than once. And when I was younger and in college I had summers where between all my jobs I worked a hundred hours a week. And those last two years of college when I was working full-time and taking a full course load it seems like all I ever did was work or study.

I benefited from all of that work. It did let me earn good money and get ahead in my career.  But I spent years of my life in a working-all-the-time auto-pilot.

And I just don’t want to do that anymore. I want to sit outside after lunch and read a good book while the pup snores under a tree. Or sit on my butt on the couch at night and enjoy someone else’s artistic work. Or go to my 88-year-old grandma’s house for lunch and stay for a couple hours talking to her without stressing over how many words I could be writing instead.

In short, I want to enjoy my life now instead of putting it off to some other day. I don’t want to live to ninety if all of those days between now and then are full of work.  Even creative work like writing.

And, yeah, that may mean I “fail” at this writing thing. Fail meaning having to go back to some other source of paying income. And that will be ironic.  That I didn’t work full-time at my “passion” so had to go back to working full time at something that’s “just a job.”

But if that happens?

Oh well. I’ll have enjoyed the years in between. Skydiving, living in New Zealand and Prague, truly spending time with my puppy and my family and my friends, writing whatever the hell I felt like, sleeping as much as I wanted every day, hiking, reading…I’d rather say I did all those things than that I wrote and wrote and wrote.

The Difference AMS Can Make

Time for my first AMS post.  I’m fairly active on some writing forums, but I’m horrible at posting screenshots on those places, so this blog gives me the chance to show something I’ve been talking about there for a couple of months now.

AMS is definitely the reason my sales have increased over the last year. I had played with them some in 2015, but I really started running them consistently in July of last year. I didn’t say much about it for the first four or five months because, well, the more people who use them the more expensive they get.  And it was nice to actually have steady full-price sales for once.  I’m not busting out the champagne by any means, but to be able to sell my books at full price month after month?  That I like to see.

I will say that the more genre-targeted your covers are, the better you’ll do.  That’s why, for example, my Rider’s Revenge series does well with AMS whereas Erelia never really did the few times I tried to advertise it.  (I define well as consistently ranking under 100K.  If you’re someone looking to move from 25K to 2K ranking, I’m not the person to look to.  But if you want to move from 250K+ ranking to under 100K, then AMS and what I’m going to talk about may help with that.)

Ironically, the example I’m about to discuss is for my first-in-series romance novel which I have yet to link to here on the blog.  But it’s the ad that’s really doing well these days and the one that most clearly shows how a free run combined with AMS can really help move a book to a higher rank.

Here’s the visual of that:SWH AMS Snapshot Free Run Comparison - Copy

As you can see above, in February 2016 I did a free run on this book which resulted in about 3,750 downloads and a free rank in the top 50 of the Amazon store.  The book was in KU at the time and I was happy that the promo paid for itself through page reads since it was a standalone with no other books under that author name.

But you can also see that the free run didn’t result in ongoing sales of that title.  It quickly sank back down to the 700K range where it stayed until I started running AMS ads on it in November 2016. (I had tried a few ads on it before and they sort of kind of worked, but November is when I finally had an ad that worked steadily to generate a few sales here or there.)

May 2017 I decided to do another free run.  I’d just released a related standalone and wanted to goose sales of that title while it was still in its first 90 days.  This time I had about 3,500 downloads and the book once again made it to the top 50 free in the Amazon store.

But now I had AMS ads running on it.  And when it came off free, those ads allowed me to maintain the rank I’d achieved through the free run as you can see very clearly on the chart above.

See below to understand what a difference that made in terms of sales and page reads.

SWH AMS Snapshots Pre and Post Free Run - Copy

I was sort of limping along with my AMS ad on this book but the free run and the momentum it gave me, goosed that ad into running.  Since that free run I’ve had 145 sales at $4.99 and 193,000 page reads on that novel using AMS ads.  The only reason I’ve been able to sustain rank and continue to generate sales is AMS. I start my ad at $10 every morning and bump it up as it hits its budget throughout the day. If I don’t keep the ad running I can see my rank start to drop when the ad runs out of funds.

It’s also pretty clear to me that AMS ads run better on books that already have some sort of momentum. This is the same ad I was running before the free promo, but now it actually spends my budget.  And it takes me a lot less effort to keep this ad going than it does my other ads.

It hasn’t been cheap to keep this ad running. Romance is expensive to bid on.  (I pay about twice as much per click for a romance click as I do for a fantasy click.) I’m basically barely profitable on the ad for book 1 but that makes all the sales for book 2 profit.

For someone with a deep backlist or books in a related series where readthrough is really high, combining a free run with AMS could have a very powerful result.  Even for me with just two standalones under this pen name it’s been profitable.

Now, some caveats here if you want to try this strategy:

  1. This is only possible if the book is in KU at the time of the free run.  Some people will borrow a book rather than download it for free if it’s in KU. This means you can come off of a free run with an improved paid ranking, since those borrows count towards your paid rank. If you’re not in KU your ranking will drop after a free run because you’ll have no sales for the days while the book was free.
  2. Also, I think I’ve managed to sustain that rank because the book is still in KU. My full-read to buy ratio is about 2:1 in romance, so without those borrows boosting my rank I couldn’t have sustained the rank I reached.
  3. I think this approach is easier to do in romance, at least for me.  I think romance readers are more prone to borrow during a free run than fantasy readers.  Also, I find it easier to promote romance than fantasy. I did a free run on Rider’s Revenge with one of the same ad sites as I used for this book and only had about 2,400 downloads. That wasn’t enough to crack the 25K mark when it came off free.
  4. I’m not sure if it makes a difference, but I left the ad running during the free run for the book.  That means my ACOS numbers look horrible for this book, but that’s not how I judge ad performance anyway.
  5. This was also a book that I knew had some potential.  When it released in 2014 it sold maybe 50 copies without any advertising and has always performed well when I promote it and been fairly well-reviewed, too.
  6. These were legitimate readers borrowing or downloading the book.  (I feel I should mention that given recent click-botting issues we’re seeing these days.)  I wouldn’t recommend using some sort of service that gets you rank without exposing you to legitimate customers who will actually read your stuff.  Yes, I think the momentum from the promo goosed my AMS ad and let me get in front of more potential customers, but I’m just not sure that would be true if the book were botted to the top. And, honestly, the promos I used for each of those free runs were $100 or less to buy, so it’s not the like the honest approach is prohibitively expensive.

So there you have it.  My first AMS post.  A free run to get momentum plus AMS ads to sustain it can work and work well.

If you aren’t using AMS yet I’d recommend it even if that means more competition for me.  There is a learning curve and the ads do require maintaining, but they’re worth it to me to have steady long-term full-price sales.  The information is out there.  I taught myself through reading the help documents and experimenting to see what worked for my books and now there are forums where the ads are discussed routinely and people share their experiences.

Of course, if you don’t want to take the time to read through blog posts and forum posts and all of that to figure them out, I do have a book I published on AMS, AMS for Authors, that walks through the different types of ads and my experience with them and recommendations for how to use them. I think it’s helpful, but I’m probably biased.